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The First Literary Hamlet and the Commonplacing of Professional Plays


Although Q1 Hamlet is usually seen as a performance text, we argue that it is in fact Shakespeare’s first literary drama. Not only is it the only professional play in the entire period that claims on its title page to have been performed at a university, but it is also the first play of Shakespeare’s to be printed with what was rapidly becoming a distinguishing feature of plays for the learned or scholarly reader: sententiae or commonplaces, signaled by commas or inverted commas at the beginning of each line or by a change in font. Q1 Hamlet participated in an emergent convention, beginning in 1600 with the publication of Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, fully forty percent of printed professional plays included these commonplace markers. But this practice was preceded and inspired by John Bodenham, who published five vernacular commonplace books from 1598 to 1600, the last two of which included a number of professional plays. Among Bodenham’s circle was stationer Nicholas Ling, who went on to publish Q1 and Q2 Hamlet. Bodenham was ridiculed for treating vernacular poetry on a par with the classics; Q1 Hamlet participates in this struggle over whether “Moderne and extant Poets,” writing in English, could produce literature. This initial attempt to treat Shakespeare as a literary dramatist, however, was something of a dead end. By the mid-seventeenth century, Shakespeare was beginning to be canonized, but for precisely the opposite reasons: not for his commonplaces but for his genius.

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